It was 190,000 years ago that a massive volcano erupted here at Undara. The eruption was so enormous that enough lava was spewed out to fill Sydney Harbour almost 50 times! And it flowed so far, that it created the Undara Lava Tubes – the longest of their kind in the world.
These incredible rock formations are now the highlight of Undara Volcanic National Park in Far North Queensland, where visiting the Undara Lava Tubes can be done as either a side trip from Cairns or as part of a road trip along the Savannah Way.
As you approach Undara Volcanic National Park, there’s nothing at first that gives away the tumultuous geothermal activity that occurred here eons ago. The savannah woodland of grevillea and eucalyptus is the same as anywhere else in this part of Outback Queensland.
It’s when you take one of the tours deeper into the park that the lava tubes are revealed.
I didn’t really have an image of them in my head beforehand, and I was quite surprised when I saw them in person. Despite what the name might suggest, they’re not small pipes that you might need to crawl through – they are more like enormous caverns that a couple of double-decker buses could drive through side by side.
The lava from the volcano 190,000 years ago created several lava flows, with the biggest about 160 kilometres long, and the next longest about 90 kilometres. Although each would’ve been a single tube at one point, lots of sections have collapsed over the years. That’s why the bits you visit these days look more like caves.
A very quick geology lesson
Geology is not the most exciting topic, but it’s worth understanding how the Undara Lava Tubes were formed if you’re planning to see them (although, of course, the guides will explain this as well).
The short version is that when the Undara Volcano erupted 190,000 years ago, all the lava that was spewing out of it had to go somewhere, and it flowed into channels formed from old watercourses.
As it flowed along, the lava started to cool down from the outside first, so the edges of this river of fire solidified and formed a crust. This crust actually insulated everything inside it, keeping the rest of the molten lava hot enough to continue flowing along its path, which is why they are so long.
The eruption continued for about three weeks, with more lava strengthening the walls and the ceiling of these tubes, until they were strong enough to stand on their own – and withstand the tests of time.
What remained when the volcano settled down were the Undara Lava Tubes.
Where are the Undara Lava Tubes?
The Undara Lava Tubes are in the Outback of Far North Queensland, within Undara Volcanic National Park. They are about 3.5 hours’ drive from Cairns or 5 hours’ drive from Townsville.
The Undara Lava Tubes are on the Savannah Way, a popular driving route between Cairns and Broome.
How long are the Undara Lava Tubes?
There were several different flows that formed the lava tubes. The longest of the Undara Lava Tubes is about 160 kilometres long, and the next biggest is about 90 kilometres long.
Can you walk the Undara Lava Tubes yourself?
You can visit the Undara Lava Tubes – but not by yourself. The only way to see the tubes and to walk through them is with a guided tour. There are two companies that offer guided tours to the Undara Lava Tubes (and I’ve got that information further down).
Although there are a few things to do within Undara Volcanic National Park, it’s the Undara Lava Tubes that are the highlight. You can only visit them with a guided tour, and there are just two companies that offer that – Undara Experience and Bedrock Village, both of which also provide accommodation.
Bedrock Village is about 40 minutes’ drive away, whereas Undara Experience is right in the park – and I’ll go through the benefits of each option shortly.
The other main activity here is hiking, and there are a few routes to choose from – some with spectacular views from the top of the hills.
If you’ve got time, it’s certainly worth spending at least 24 hours here so you can take at least one of the tours (and possibly even a second one), enjoy a hike or two, and relax amongst the beautiful landscapes.
Undara Volcanic National Park
Although the Undara Lava Tubes once stretched out for huge distances, the sections that you can visit today are within the Undara Volcanic National Park.
I always like to give a bit of information about the specifics of each national park – but, in this case, there’s not much of the park that you can access on your own, so it’s pretty straightforward.
There are only a few things to do in Undara Volcanic National Park. The first is to visit the Undara Lava Tubes, the second is the Kalkani Crater rim walk, and the third are some walks around the Undara Experience. I’ll go through each of these in detail shortly.
There’s no entry fee for Undara Volcanic National Park and access is easy. Although some of the roads are gravel, they are fine for any type of vehicle, even if it’s been raining.
There’s food and drink available at the Undara Experience, although it’s wise to bring some snacks and water with you, in case of emergency (especially if you’re going to do some of the walks).
Pets are not allowed in the national park, so if you’re travelling with a dog, you’ll need to choose one of the accommodation options back on the highway.
Undara Experience is not the only company that has tourism offerings for visitors at Undara Volcanic National Park – but it is the main one, and it’s the only one actually based here. (I’ll have more on the alternatives shortly).
Right in the heart of the national park, Undara Experience has a range of accommodation options, including sites for tents, powered sites for campervans, cabins, and even rooms in converted heritage train carriages.
When it comes to food, Undara Experience has a huge bar and restaurant area in a semi-outdoor setting sheltered by a large roof that evokes the shape of the lava tubes.
And in the mornings it runs a ‘bush breakfast’ a short walk away, where the tea and coffee is brewed over a fire and you’ll make your own toast over the coals (but, don’t worry, you don’t need to cook the bacon and eggs yourself).
Undara Experience is also one of two operators that are allowed to run tours to the the lava tubes – and that’s the reason you come here, right? You don’t have to be staying at the accommodation to take the tours, but it makes sense to do that, unless you’re planning to just stop for a couple of hours on a day of driving.
Undara Lava Tubes tours
You can’t see the lava tubes without a tour – and you can’t even get close enough to ‘kind of’ see them – so you’ll need to choose at least one tour when you’re here.
Undara Experience is one of the two main operators and its tours leave from its headquarters in the national park, just a short drive from the geological sites.
There are three tour options to choose from:
- Wind Tunnel Explorer: If you only have time for one tour, then this is the one I would suggest. It’s two hours long and takes you to three different sections of the lava tube. You’ll go into the caverns for the best views and learn plenty about the geology of the site.
- Archway Explorer: This tour is also two hours long but goes to some different parts of the park, in particular The Archway which is a short section of tube open at both ends. This tour is easier so I would recommend it for less mobile visitors. Although you could do both tours, the commentary will be quite similar.
- Wildlife at Sunset: If you are keen to do two tours, I would recommend doing this one as the second option. It’s focused more on the animals and the plants of the park – and you’re sure to spot a few wallabies and kangaroos along the way. The tour includes drinks on a hilltop for sunset (with stunning views) but the highlight is going into one of the caves after dark as all the bats fly out!
The other local operator that has permission to take tours to the Undara Lava Tubes is Bedrock Village, and the thing I like about their offerings is that it’s something a bit different to Undara Experience, so you do have a legitimate choice.
The Bedrock Village tours are slightly more expensive – but that’s because they include a lot more, such as meals and a walk around the Kalkani Crater (although you can do that without a guide).
Here are the two tours the Bedrock Village offers, both of which leave from their site back on the highway at Mount Surprise.
- Full-day tour: This tour is actually a great way to see everything and makes for a fun day out. It starts with a walk around Kalkani Crater, which is inside the national park, followed by visits to several sections of Undara Lava Tubes. There’s morning and afternoon tea included, as well as a lunch!
- Morning tour: The morning tour is basically just a shorter version of the full-day tour. You’ll also have the walk at Kalkani Crater and see a few sections of the lava tubes. But it moves a bit faster and only morning tea is included, because you’ll be back by lunchtime.
When it comes to choosing the best Undara tour, I would just suggest going for the one that suits your schedule and accommodation choice, because you’ll see pretty much the same things with either operator.
Undara walking trails
Aside from the Undara Lava Tubes, one of the other main things to do at Undara are some walks – and there are a few lovely ones to choose from.
I think the best walk is the Kalkani Crater rim walk. It leads you up to the top of a volcanic crater and then the path does a loop around the rim. The ascent is not particularly steep and the whole walk is 3.8 kilometres in total. The average walker will be able to do it in about an hour.
The longest walk in the national park is the Rosella Plains lookout trail and it leaves from the Undara Experience. It’s a loop walk that is 12 kilometres in total and takes at least 4 hours. The trail leads you though granite country, with some wonderful views of the rocky outcrops and lots of colourful flora along the way.
From the Undara Experience, there are a few other shorter walks you can do, including The Bluff (2.3 kilometres as a loop) or The Bush Walk (5.8 kilometres as a loop), or the Flat Rock Track (8.6 kilometres return).
Each of these walks have similar landscapes, although the Flat Rock Trail also takes you closer to some swamp areas where you might see a bit more birdlife.
With all of them, you can just go along as far as you want and then come back, if you don’t have time for the whole walk. But I think it’s worth seeing some of this gorgeous country – particularly around sunset or sunrise.
When it comes to accommodation at the Undara Lava Tubes, there are a few options, with sites for campervans/camping or normal rooms.
As I’ve already mentioned, the main place to stay at the Undara Lava Tubes is the Undara Experience, a large complex right in the park that has a range of accommodation, plus a great restaurant and bar.
The Undara Experience is certainly the easiest option and the location gives you the opportunity to enjoy some of the walks right from your accommodation, without having to drive to the start of the trails. The tours that are run here are also very good.
The main downside is that you’ll pay more for the convenience, with unpowered camping sites starting at $35 and rooms in the railway carriages from $190. The bush breakfast, a wonderful experience where your tea or coffee will be brewed over a campfire, is $27.50.
If you’re not worried about price, the Undara Experience would be my strong recommendation.
The other main option for accommodation for people visiting the Undara Lava Tubes is Bedrock Village. It’s back on the main highway, about 40 minutes’ drive away.
Just like Undara Experience, Bedrock Village has tent sites, van sites, and cabins. The accommodation is a bit more basic, as are the facilities, but the main difference is that they’re about half the price!
Staying at Bedrock Village also means that you’re not in the national park itself so it is a fair drive to go in and see the sights. But if you’re just going to do one of Bedrock’s tours, then that’s not such a problem. And for anyone towing a large caravan, for example, being able to stay on the highway can be an advantage.
There aren’t many other options in the area, but there a couple of alternatives to consider.
The Mt Surprise Tourist Park has a selection of accommodation, including campsites, powered sites, and motel rooms. Everything is relatively rustic, but there’s a charm to this kind of place.
Another option closer to Cairns is Pinnarendi Station, which has sites for caravans and camping. It’s only about 30 minutes’ drive to Undara, so it’s easy to use as a base to visit the lava tubes.